#SocialSM Principle #6: Admit that you don’t have all the answers

Tom Liacas —  August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

So far, in this series of blog posts presenting principles for managing online reputation risk, I have laid out what I call the “Principles for Survival”, that is, the absolute essential practices for avoiding crisis. Starting with this post, we will move into the “Principles for Success”, precepts that, if adopted, can confer competitive advantages to the leaders who take them on. Principle #6, discussed below, is all about the surprising power of showing a little weakness online, especially if you are an all-powerful corporation or public institution.

I will begin this discussion with an anecdote from the field. Not so long ago, a team I was working with was privy to a surprising turn of events when managing the Twitter account of a large mining company. Allow me to say, on the side, that engaging a social media audience around the vagaries of ore extraction is no easy task! Imagine our surprise then, when the biggest breakthrough for this account was brought about by a malicious hack.

As with many Twitter accounts, from time to time, our client’s was temporarily taken over by a person (or robot) that began spouting the virtues of rapid weight loss programs. Within an hour, the up to now dormant followers of the account sprang to the rescue, alerting us of the hack and then sending their sympathies and congratulations once the breach had been resolved. From that time on, engagements on twitter were active and sustained over a term extending months beyond the hack!

The takeaway here, is not that we should all go out and get our clients’ accounts hacked but rather, that some exposed vulnerability goes a long way towards ‘humanizing’ a corporate social media account. Once humanized, the account’s community feels liberated to engage with it, to collaborate and even to defend it in times of crisis. This capital of goodwill translates into increased influence and reach and is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Of course, presenting anything but a spotless and invincible exterior has long been taboo in corporate communications. Not so any longer. There are many ways to show some vulnerability without appearing totally inept. For one thing, simply stating that you don’t have all the answers is an invitation to your communities to collaborate with you and support you. This wins huge points both online and offline! Below are two good case studies.

In 2010, Chevron Corporation surprised many, myself included, when it launched its big budget We Agree print and TV campaign. While dismissed as greenwashing by some, it did have the courage to lead with copy such as: “It’s time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy” and “The world needs more than oil”. Nothing radical here, but a big first step for an oil company.

When Starbucks Coffee decided that their customers’ complaints and requests were worth listening to, they mobilized a powerful online reputation resource that continues to generate massive engagement and a widespread sense of customer appreciation. Going strong since 2008, the MyStarbucksIdea seems to have harvested over 100,000 consumer submissions to date.

Here is the complete chapter text from the #Social Survival Manifesto:

Principle for Survival #6:

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, vulnerability is a strength in networked society.

Authenticity has enormous power on this new medium and nothing wins you points faster than admitting weakness and asking for help.

This was a big no-no before and I know it will be hard to swallow but, if you do it right, you will gain strategic advantage as your former detractors become solution finders with you.

More and more of the word’s corporate giants are trying on humility for size and admitting that they don’t have all the answers. By doing so, they are winning the hearts and minds of those who listen.

Don’t be left out of this.

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Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

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An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.